by Sandra Lewis
If you taste something sourish in your mouth while your gut is heaving in the wee hours of the morning and if clear liquid is gushing from your depths into the small whilte plastic IKEA garbage pail which, in panic, you just emptied of its contents onto the bathroom floor – who cares? – for more desperate use; and if your belly is hurting, particularly the lower right side; if, on the previous day, you peed with a bolt of sharp pain once or twice; oh, yes, and if in that same night your stools started stubborn and hard and spoke to you not once but four times and became ever more willing and wet; if all that happened, you should comb your hair, find your phone and call 911. You have to get your appendix out. At least, those were the symptoms that led to the removal of mine. It’s probably wiser to get sick this way, that is, suddenly, if a dramatic procedure is required, reason being that very little time is available for worry.
If you want a lot of attention just suffer through ER and get admitted. Once past that post, you get the full Monty although in more ways than one. I mean, amid the attention I actually lost my pyjama bottoms somewhere between the ER cubicle and my post-op hospital bed.
The young ER doctor on her first time through said it was either a virus or appendicitis and someone would soon take me for a CT scan to find out. The second time through she said, “The resident surgeon will come in to see you. It’s your appendix.” The declaration of a laparascopic appendectomy in no way alarmed me although it came from that awfully young Dr. Wilkins. My past boasts countless unspecified medical miseries and I very much wanted to believe her certain diagnosis and prescription. The onslaught of further tests began with pokes and questions. You know: intravenous; tightened strap around the arm for the taking of blood samples; a press on the sorest part of the body to see what makes you wince or even better, yell. Oh, yes and a swab applied to the backside by a hygienically gloved technician. I didn’t ask why she was doing it or if she liked doing it. I didn’t want to talk.
And questions. There I lay as white as the blankets I was buried in. Grey-white, really, as I learned from the mirror during a stint in the washroom. I was a ghostly apparition and much too early – three days before Halloween already. Colder than an icicle but with teeth, curiously, not chattering, I answered identical questions from the ambulance attendant, the ER nurse, the ER doctor, the resident surgeon and the surgeon. I had no wish to repeat the same tale ad infinitum, like one guilty of senility. I am no senior senior. I’m a junior senior and let no one forget it.
The first interrogator, the paramedic who knocked at my front door, must have heard my answers ride on a voice weak with pain. Minutes later in Emergency the nurse or receptionist asked for my hospital and health cards. With a shaky yet dismissive hand wave totally unlike that of the famous senior known as the Queen, I directed the medic to my purse as if he were a trusted son. He rummaged on my behalf and double-tasked by relating the reason for my lying on his stretcher.
The ponytailed little Doctor Wilkin moved like a whirlwind in and out of my quickly assigned cubicle. Doubtlessly aware of owning undoctorly traits with regard to size, weight and hairstyle, she established her qualifications as best she could. She spoke in curt sentences and wore dark-rimmed glasses which sat on a short, sharp nose. Surprising authority emanated from her wispy self. She stood at the ready with pen and clipboard.
She took her own turn to ask what my problem was.
“The ambulance people have my information,” I managed to say.
I hoped she’d reply that she’d get it from them. But she did not say that. She said, “Yes, but we like to get it straight from the patient.”
There was no need to ask why. I knew why. Hospitals don’t play the kids’ game of PASS IT ON. That’s where information like ‘I’ve been throwing up’ turns into ‘I stepped on a duck’. So, I didn’t challenge her further and cooperated like a
good if sick soldier as best I could.
She mercifully prescribed pain medicine and Gravol when the heaves started
again. All grew calm. Intermittent sleep took over.
No food, no drink. Ice pieces.
Visitors. The up side of illness. Especially when those visitors are one’s nearest and dearest. With sons at work, daughters-in-law organized the situation. How touching is that? One was free to stay with me and at the ready to do anything. She asked the doctor such knowledgeable questions that finally, the doctor asked if she herself was a medical person. Throughout, the older and younger ponytails wagged at each other.
My other daughter-in-law actually is a doctor. Beyond my open cubicle curtain I had spied her at the nursing station at eight a.m.
Unexpected energy allowed me to call out in an unexpected burst of energy.
Kris was solicitous beyond any belief and wondered that I had not phoned her in the middle of the night.
Nurses in and out, too. Doctors. Keeping me up to date on the likely time of
the appendectomy. Son with doctor daughter-in-law present until the five-o’clock operation. Both sons afterwards.
Slept like the dead, then woke up in a dark place, hearing a voice flowered with an impressive English accent. It belonged to the terribly distressed Margaret, the very ill old woman in the bed next to mine. In disturbingly strong terms she was explaining to a nurse the embarrassing result of her incontinence.
“What time is it, please?” I asked.
I don’t know how I sounded as that nurse whisked past my bed on her way out of the room. In great grogginess I wasn’t even sure IF I sounded.
“Three a.m.,” she said.
Hmm. Sunk with such comfort and so heavily into the bed that the prongs of a forklift truck would have had to pry me loose, I soon returned to the timeless slumber of the properly doped up.
Breakfast. Apple juice, clear tea and orange jelly, all tasting like the plastic
containers which held them.
Resident surgeon Doctor Basrur asked how I was feeling. When I said in
amazement that I hadn’t needed pain medication he said, “Wow! We must have done a good job. Are you passing gas?”
This is a rude question beyond hospital walls. Yet, inside it’s the question twenty-four seven, expressed by a myriad of staff and far more regularly than any amount of the human smelly stuff ever is. And it’s done without discretion. The professionals should be careful. A nurse friend of mine once asked a man that question as he sat on a chair beside a hospital bed. The man looked at her in surprise and answered, “Yes, but I’m a visitor.”
Dr. Basrur said I could probably go home if I held my lunch down and started to pass gas. He would order a suitable lunch and we’d wait for the results. I’m a car, I thought: fuel in, gas out.
So, two criteria were to be met. First, I should down lunch which consisted of cream of leek soup, a small carton of two percent milk and a cup of tea. I did that. In spite of the pervading plastic smell the food stayed down.
It took time to meet the second demand but praise be to God, it just happened. No effort on my part was required and when an hour or so had passed, it passed. That would be the gas, my friend for once and my ticket out of the place.
Where was Dr. Basrur when I needed him? I really wanted to share my news.
“Well,” said he cautiously, somewhere between leek soup and supper hour, “Let’s try supper as well.”
Fine. Fine. But that repast could have been my downfall. From beneath the massive tray lid and on a large plate sat a giant scoop of instant mashed and hopelessly dry potatoes, enough large peas for three patients and a helping of beef stew which must have been poured from a tin. But, hurray! Rice pudding for dessert! My favourite comfort food. Alas, in spite of the occasional raisin it tasted
like gluey starch and smelled of damp cardboard. No matter. Focus on the job at hand. Motivation was higher than high. Could I swallow the stuff and keep it down? Yes, I could and did. It was a miracle.
Meanwhile earlier and on the other side of the curtain the aged Margaret had been saying prayers and expressing deep loneliness to her God. She told him of her ungrateful relatives who were abandoning her. Her phone did ring but she could not reach it. I asked if she wanted me to get it for her and of course she said yes.
Even a laparascopic appendectomy can slow you down if it’s fresh; the ringing stopped before I could hand the dangling device to her. I placed it close to her hand in case of another call.
We got talking and she told of her British mother who had been a fashion designer.
“In Paris and London and you can’t do any better than that,” she said.
Her mother had dressed the childhood Margaret in beautiful clothes. She herself dressed as a typical housewife if she was at home. When clients knocked at their door they’d ask to see the designer. Dowdy Mother delighted in their reactions of astonishment when she inevitably answered that they were looking at her.
Margaret cheered up in telling this interesting little story but not for long. She returned to complaints about her family of nieces and nephews and how they had taken advantage of her.
“Why,” she said, “I made the veil for my niece’s wedding dress and she can’t even phone me.”
Her phone rang again and this time her hand reached it. A long chat with
Yvonne helped to comfort her.
“Oh,” said Margaret. “You say I have an ulcer. And an operation? Two weeks ago? Oh, I see.”
Eventually she hung up and turned towards me. “My mother was a fashion designer,” she said. “In London and Paris. You can’t do any better than that. She dressed me in beautiful clothes as a child…..”
During all this, from time to time, tiny Amy who sat on her bed across the way, also an elderly patient, advertised her presence only by her bare feet which swung to and fro below her closed curtain.
Well, the appendix experience was traumatic, informative and encouraging. It’s a well organized hospital. Perhaps even the quality of meals was planned to get patients moving, shall we say and to make for shorter stays. Aside from the food, care could not have been better. Laparascopic surgery is a merciful procedure although to date my belly button is less appealing than it used to be. I’m thankful not to be in Margaret’s shoes yet. Well, Margaret doesn’t put shoes on. Not any more.
I’d like to know who has my plaid pyjama bottoms.